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Women of the American West

Beyond the pail

A woman milks a cow at a farmstead in the mountains of Colorado, c1900. Perhaps because of the many hardships they suffered in the West, the story of women pioneers is characterised by camaraderie, resilience and ingenuity

Frontier women endured challenging environments, social isolation and a seemingly never-ending litany of domestic chores

In fledgling towns, meanwhile, women found themselves rare commodities: in early mining settlements, men outnumbered women nine to one. Sarah Herndon described the Virginia City mining camp as an energetic and sprawling community where men scrambled for claims like “bees around a hive” and left the ground with “great deep holes and high heaps of dirt”. Services such as boarding, laundry and prostitution were prized in these frenetic, rapidly developing settlements. Fortunes were there to be made and lost, not only by prospectors but also by female entrepreneurs – though such women were also vulnerable to abuse.

distribution, could receive title to 160 acres of land as heads of household as long as they were over 21, paid the registration fee, lived on the site and proved that they had ‘improved’ that land.

Diaries and journals written by homesteading women reveal their lot to be a hard one: they endured challenging environments, social isolation and a seemingly never-ending litany of domestic chores. One woman on the plains wrote in her diary of a pressing personal dilemma: whether to eat her last chicken for sustenance or preserve it as a companion. Their stories, though, were also full of female camaraderie, resilience and ingenuity – sharing home remedies for illnesses, building gardens to enliven sod houses, and taking command of households when faced with absent, dead or useless husbands.

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Steps towards suffrage Women on the 19th-centur y f ront ier made s teps towards polit ical suffrage. The territory of Wyoming gave women the vote in 1869, the same year the National Woman Suffrage Association was founded (though this reflected not only the campaigning of early female suffragists but also a sentiment to cancel out the votes of African-American men with white women). The next eight states to grant suffrage to women were all in the West: Colorado (1893), Utah, Idaho (both 1896), Washington (1910), California (1911), Oregon, Kansas, and Arizona (all 1912). This indicates how the racial fissures of frontier geopolitics, the aptitudes of pioneer women and ideas about the ‘civilising’ female voice conspired to change suffrage laws.

Elsewhere, women redefined gender norms in all sorts of ways. Martha Jane Cannary – popularly known as Calamity

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